We live in a disconnected age where colors define politics and words like “rural” and “urban” are used to describe who we are. For children of big city parents the estrangement can be particularly acute. Just ask a 10-year old where food comes from. Chances are he’ll look perplexed, then slowly recover with a smile and yell, ‘the grocery store.”
If this has happened to you perhaps it’s time to make your next vacation a learning experience. The perfect place is California’s Salinas Valley, a region rich in soil and history where MBA farmers grow food in an area made famous by Nobel and Pulitzer prize winning author John Steinbeck.
Steinbeck was in his mid-20s when he began writing about the people of small town and rural California. Set in nearby Monterey, books like Tortilla Flat (1935) and Cannery Row (1945) focused on eccentrics who scrambled to make a living during hard times. Be sure your child reads at least a synopsis of the latter before visiting the Monterey Bay Aquarium located on Cannery Row. Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath (1939) conveys the pain of the Great Depression’s Dust Bowl migration as no history book can and explains the ancestral ties still linking Southern California to the American Midwest. But Steinbeck always considered his greatest book to be East of Eden (1952) since it is both a profile and paean to his hometown of Salinas and the struggles of its farmers to get perishable crops to distant markets.
Deepen your literary appreciation of Salinas by making the National Steinbeck Center your first stop. Unlimited free parking allows you to use the Center as a base of operations to explore the historic downtown. The exhibits inside feature brief excerpts from his major books and are sufficiently interactive to keep children engaged. After touring the Center enjoy lunch at a Main St. restaurant or walk several blocks down Central Ave. to the Steinbeck House Restaurant, his Victorian boyhood home that’s on the National Register of Historic Places.
California’s Bounty Blooms East of Eden
After lunch head out to The Farm, a fresh produce store just off Highway 68 a few miles west of town. It’s easy to recognize because of the giant wooden farmers at the entrance of the property. Owner Christopher Bunn provides directions, advice and short tours of his 160-acre farm where he explains why organic food costs more (it requires twice as much labor), how iceberg lettuce got its name (because in the days of rail transport head lettuce was shipped east covered in ice) and where the “straw” in strawberries comes from (a layer of straw that used to be placed beneath the vines to keep the berries from getting muddy).
Before leaving The Farm take a closer look at the soil. Unlike the red clay of the South or the Southwest’s mineral-rich sands, Salinas’s dark, rich loam is almost spongy to the touch. Topsoil throughout much of the 250,000-acre valley runs 100-ft deep and is constantly damp thanks to a large underground river that feeds three different aquifers.
“Only Egypt’s Nile valley equals Salinas in fertility,” says Bunn, gesturing expansively toward the surrounding fields. “Salinas produces the majority of America’s leaf lettuce, head lettuce, broccoli and artichokes, and the county grows more grapes than Napa.”
For an up close look at artichokes drive a few minutes down the road to Castroville (pop. 6,500) to meet Pat Hopper, the locally anointed Artichoke Queen, (California’s first Artichoke Queen was Marilyn Monroe) who helps manage Castroville’s annual Artichoke Festival. She’ll probably meet you in an 1869 schoolhouse called La Scuola that serves as festival headquarters if you e-mail her at email@example.com. It’s right in the center of town across from the Alcachofa Bar. She’ll explain the difference between annual and perennial artichokes and provide recipes to prepare California’s state vegetable.
Castroville is surrounded by artichoke fields, so it’s easy to find workers walking through the fields. When they find an artichoke of sufficient size, they cut it off the stem and toss it over their shoulder into a basket. Seventy-five percent of America’s artichokes come from the Salinas Valley, which contributes to Monterey County’s $5 billion agricultural economy.
Drive around the Salinas Valley and you’ll see the efficiency attending modern agriculture. Because of the valley’s microclimates, summer harvesting is almost continuous. That means field hands pick crops like cauliflower, celery and carrots next to slowly-moving platforms on which other workers trim, wash and bag items before placing them on a conveyor leading to a refrigerated truck several yards away. If today’s produce seems to stay fresher longer it’s because it spends less time getting to market. “Farm to table” is not just a locavore slogan; it truly describes the process by which food is distributed.
As I drove past farmland worth $70,000 an acre I tried to make astute observations, but the truth is my life has been spent in cities. Broccoli, parsley, spinach, bok choy, kale, they all look green to me. So I signed up for one of Evan Oakes’ Ag Venture Tours. A UC Davis agronomist, Oakes offers half or full-day educational tours that are perfect for both families and single city slickers.
Factories in the Fields
Salinas’s extended growing season contributes to an $8.5 billion agricultural economy. But what sets Monterey County apart from other agricultural production centers are science and marketing. Beginning in the late 1980s it began selling a premium ready-to-eat salad packaged in cellophane. By the start of the millennium, Salinas’s farmers were field packing whole heads of Butterhead-Boston lettuce into plastic clamshells. In 2012, after genetically engineering a new vegetable called broccolini and convincing consumers that kale was more than a garnish, Salinas added more value to its lettuce crops by sending artisan lettuce to grocery stores in bags containing a mix of arugula, endive, oak leaf, green leaf and butterhead-bibb lettuces. Other advances bring down the costs of production. Two years ago, Salinas grower Tanimura and Antle began planting lettuce fields by unspooling tape into which seeds and fertilizer were embedded. The new system uses a tenth of the labor to transplant seedlings at a rate four times faster than humans did before.
At Taylor Farms, a leader in fresh bagged salad, orders for the following day arrive at midnight and by 2 a.m. workers are out picking lettuce and vegetables that arrive by 6 a.m.at the company’s harvest facility where they are triple washed, chopped, cooled to 34-degrees and vacuum packed in barcoded bags that will keep everything fresh for 16 days. By mid-morning refrigerated trailers packed with gourmet salads, chopped salad kits, Stir Fry Kits, vegetable trays and organic vegetables are rolling out of town past fields where gleaners are salvaging discarded lettuce that can be shredded and sent to Taco Bell.
Salinas’s agriculture and its historic downtown seem pastoral and timeless, but several of the old Main St. buildings mentioned in John Steinbeck’s books now contain coder dojos and digital nests. If the National Steinbeck Center celebrates Salinas literary past, the Western Growers Center for Innovation & Technology across the street underscores the contemporary relationship between Salinas and Silicon Valley.
“The Salinas Valley loves techies,” smiles former mayor Dennis Donohue, now the Chief Innovation Officer for Cultiva, a manufacturer of biofilm packaging for fresh fruit and vegetables. “The marriage of science and agriculture allows us to increase yields, minimize expenses and lengthen the period when food will stay fresh.”
Attractions Away from the Farm
Parents with young children should consider driving 40 miles south of Salinas to visit Monterey County’s Agriculture & Rural Life Museum. The open-air historical park has six buildings that include an irrigation museum, a 1903 train depot, the 1887 La Gloria Schoolhouse, the Olson Blacksmith Shop and the Spreckles House, an 1898 home of a typical agricultural family. Both the school and the Spreckles house have evocative period furnishings adults will appreciate. Of special interest at La Gloria School are the framed 1872 Rules for Teachers hanging on the wall. No. 4: “Men teachers may take one evening each week for courting purposes, or two evenings a week if they go to church regularly.” and No. 5: “After ten hours in school the teachers may spend the remaining time reading the Bible or other good books.”
As for the children, there are tree-shaded play areas and a gazebo for picnics as well as a windmill, railroad cars, barns filled with old agricultural machinery and an Exhibit Barn filled with buckboards, old cars, and a turn-of-the-century drug store. Teach your children about a slice of American history they’re unlikely to learn in school and then let them run, laugh and yell in a secure atmosphere. Be sure to call (831) 385-8020, (831) 386-0965 or (831) 385-5964 before you go to learn the availability of special tours and attractions.
Colonial Spain’s California Capital
Due west of Salinas and just north of Carmel is Monterey, capital of Alta California under Spain and Mexico. The town became part of the U.S. in 1846 following the Mexican-American War. There’s a lot of history, art and theater here, but families with children best head directly to the Monterey Bay Aquarium, which exemplifies the adage that learning can be fun. Every aquarium has fish tanks, but in Monterey the enormous tanks contain habitats that include pelagic giants, playful sea otters, translucent jellyfish and sharks gliding through kelp forests. Several touch tanks are constructed so that children can reach in and feel eels, barnacles and circling baby stingrays. Several times a day kids can watch and often help feed the sea otters and penguins. The aquarium reflects the fecundity of the bay which is riven by an undersea canyon as deep as the Grand Canyon.
There’s a restaurant at the aquarium. Ignore it and walk down Cannery Row and stop at one of the many bay-front cafes. During the 1930s close to two dozen canneries operated around the clock turning Monterey Bay’s 10-inch sardines into fish oil and fishmeal for chickens. At 800 Cannery Row stop to inspect Pacific Biological Laboratories, the old wooden building where John Steinbeck hung out with his marine biologist friend Ed Ricketts.
Monterey County has 45,000 acres of planted vineyards and dozens of wineries with tasting rooms easily reached by car. The River Road Trail paralleling Highway 101 south of Salinas meanders past 11 well-marked wineries, all of them completely boring for children. The Hahn Family Winery on the River Road near Soledad may be worth a stop, however, since it offers ATV cruises through the vineyard. The brief trips underscore the delicate balance of nature on which agriculture relies. Kids indifferent to wine probably care about grapes and will enjoy learning how Hahn uses falcons and barn owls to control starlings and other grape-eating varmints. To keep deer from eating the grapes, deer distress calls play periodically on speakers. Mountain lions attracted by the recordings keep deer away so farmers don’t waste time hunting deer.
Hahn is a good place to stop for lunch since its tasting room opens onto an enclosed outdoor deck overlooking 1,100 acres of vineyards. The salads and sandwiches are delicious whether accompanied by chardonnay, pinot noir or lemonade.
Where to Stay in the Salinas Valley?
The best thing that can be said about Salinas hotels is that they’re perfectly adequate. The Hampton Inn, Best Western, Howard Johnson, Holiday Inn and Marriott Courtyard all offer clean rooms with comfortable beds and continental breakfasts.
If you’re looking for something more elegant, however, stay in nearby Carmel. The Hyatt Carmel Highlands on coastal Highway 1 has ocean view apartments, most with wood burning fireplaces and outdoor terraces. There’s even babysitting. Dine at California Market at Pacific Edge, the hotel’s gourmet restaurant to which well behaved children are welcome. (120 Highland Dr. Carmel-by-the-Sea, CA 93923 (831) 620-1234)
For a charming B&B closer to Salinas try the Captain’s Inn at Moss Landing. The Inn’s 10 rooms, which run from $149 to $289 a night, are decorated in a nautical décor and come with a full American breakfast. Five miles of hiking trails and Elkhorn Slough are right outside your door. If you just want to relax, ask for one of the larger rooms in the Boat House Building that have water views.
Salinas best hotel is the Inn at the Pinnacles, a luxury B&B nestled among vineyards in a Gabilan Mountains valley. Each of the six suites has a gas barbecue, wet bar, private deck, fireplace and whirlpool tub, and costs from $235 to $275 a night with a two-night minimum. There’s also a hosted wine and cheese reception early every evening.
Plenty to Eat in Salinas
Breakfast is essential if you’re traveling with kids and in Salinas First Awakenings is a great place to start the day. Located in the 1898 McDougall Building just down from the National Steinbeck Center, this café has everything from huevos rancheros to calamari steak and eggs. If you want a burger, salad or sandwich you can come back for lunch.
After visiting the Steinbeck Center, walk a couple blocks west on Central Ave. to the Steinbeck House where Salinas matrons serve delicious lunches, dinners and a high tea the second Saturday each month in the Victorian house where John Steinbeck lived as a boy. The menu changes monthly but the hospitality remains constant. Eat up! All profits go to local charities and scholarships.
If your kids want burgers while you’d prefer artichoke penne pasta or a crab cake salad, avoid an argument by heading to Monterey Coast Brewing on Main St. a few steps from First Awakenings. The food is excellent as is the brewed-on-premises beer, which at $4 for a 10 oz. glass is one of the best buys in Salinas.
Salinas has two steakhouses. The more traditional is Growers Pub on Monterey St., a heritage place once favored by cowboys and ranch owners that serves kale Caesar and arugula beet salad but would prefer you order a prime rib or the pork chops. For similar fare in a more contemporary setting, head back over to Main St. to 201 Main, a pricier steak and seafood house in an old bank building. Check out the vault in the basement now used as a wine cellar, then head next door to the Mixology Lounge for gin and karaoke.
Stop and Buy Fresh Vegetables
On your way out of town be sure to stop at Pezzini Farms, a family-owned produce stand brimming with Salinas’s bounty located south of Castroville at the Molera Road exit off Highway 1. You’ll find the county’s best selection of fresh artichokes, plus other locally produced fruits, vegetables, jellies and marinades.